Back when Georgetown had only a few French restaurants there was one in particular where even the flowers exuded a sense of well-being. I was invited by my new friend Anne to join several others there for dinner.
She strode into the doorway with the flair of Coco Chanel.
The tuxedoed maitre d' welcomed us, then guided us softly to a table where waiters stood holding out our chairs, menus in hand. I opened mine and settled in for a long read. Anne didn't bother. "Don't you just hate entrees? I much prefer appetizers and desserts, don't you?" She lit a cigarette, flirtatiously indifferent to the rest of us. "I'll have the caviar and mousse au chocolat," she told the waiter, cooing the names like childhood favorites. Then, like a queen addressing a favored knight, she turned to our host: "David, darling, you order the wines. You're so good at it."
I was no hick. I'd been to Europe, once with my parents and once with a backpack, and knew the difference between escargot and escarole, but I sank into my plush seat, ungainly and outroyaled. Everything on the menu looked yummy and I agonized over my choice, but Anne's bravura performance left me too self-conscious to ask, or risk embarrassing myself. She never asked what I was having. And that pretty much summed up our differences.
David, our host and her longtime friend, was the son of a pedigreed ambassador.
They chatted away about London and Paris and Rue de la Paix the way I talked about Bethesda and upper Wisconsin Avenue. Food and wine fell into place through invisible hands. I have no memory of tasting anything at all.
More than their fluency with the dining language, it was their easy command of the place that floored me, their sense of belonging to this hushed, golden palace of sophistication. A restaurant owned by a man named Jean-Paul was their provenance, their birthright.
It was my first experience with gut-wrenching envy, of wanting to slip out of my life and into another's. I sat in their charmed circle, lit only by the glow from their spotlight.
Recently I read an article about a singer, Barbara Cook, that took me back to that long ago table.
At age 75, she is considered to be at the top of her game, a great interpreter of classic American standards. In her classes she advises her students, above all, to stop trying to sound like Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland. To accept who they are and use their own memories and experiences.
When do you stop trying to copy someone else?
When do you slip into your own skin?
When do you finally set yourself free?
When did I finally get it through my head that I can't get what another person has without also being the person she is? As simplistic as it sounds, it always comes back to fidelity. Fidelity to yourself. It has taken me almost a lifetime to settle in. And what a relief.
"A young man's ambition," wrote Robert Penn Warren, "is to get along in the world and make a place for himself. Half your life goes that way, until you're 45 or 50. Then, if you're lucky, you make terms with life, you get released."
Being at ease in my own skin, taking my own measure, has been as great a struggle for liberation as any fought on the barricades. The trap of envy is that it makes it hard to remember what it was you really wanted, to bring your own self, with its oddities, scraps of habits, sly bargains, lost dreams and silly hopes to the table or mike or kitchen or boardroom or writing desk or restaurant.
The envy that I tasted at dinner that night folded into my long-running internal debate. What Anne possessed that both attracted and repelled me was the seductive power of her authority, and how she would successfully use or ignore things for her own ends. I could order the caviar, wear red velvet shoes or make flamboyant assertions, and believe me I tried (did I envy the men she attracted and the doors that flew open? You bet I did.), but I could never quite pull it off. Did I lack her self-regard, her confidence, her industrial-size ego? For the longest time I tortured myself with questions: Is that a weakness of mine or a strength? A sign of my insecurity or softness? Will it hold me back or keep me steady? In the end, of course, it doesn't matter. It's just you.
Whatever it is that makes some people race faster to the finish line or climb higher on the tree -- competitiveness, get-up-and-go, a hard-to-please mother -- just wasn't part of my makeup. I've stopped trying to nail down the psychological explanations and returned to the advice of my wise and underappreciated mother: "You have to play the cards you're dealt. Just play them like a master."
Not until I hit 50 did I feel the first springs of release. Now I claim my likes and dislikes without regard to how they position me. "You blows who you is," said Louis Armstrong, which is the most jampacked description of making art I've come across, including the art of living your life. If I get the chance to reach 75, I need to know I was brave enough to sound like me.
Eventually, I got to laugh at myself and see envy for the house of mirrors it is.
The last time I saw Anne, she had married a fabulously wealthy man and moved West where they bought acres of land and built a weekend retreat that resembled a small ranch. Her newest passion was for Zoloft, which she described in hushed and holy terms. I bumped into David only once, in the corner of a Chinese restaurant in Georgetown, where he was drinking his lunch. And then I met Jean-Paul. On the dance floor of a hotel ballroom, at the wedding of my cousin's son.
Cousin Kenny and his wife, Sylvie, a pretty woman from a large Jewish Moroccan family, are homey and bighearted. She is a talented hairdresser who works at her brother's salon. After the ceremony, I sat with my relatives at our assigned dinner table, waiting for the food, listening to the band. I rarely get the chance to dance anymore and asked every aunt, uncle and cousin, but got no takers.
On the far side of the room, Sylvie was talking with a man who couldn't keep his feet from moving. Who is that, I asked my aunt, and could I ask him to dance? Why not, she answered, he's Sylvie's brother, Sami, the one who owns the salon. Quite a character. He also owns a French restaurant in Georgetown. She turned to my aunt. What is he called outside the family? Oh, yeah. Jean-Paul. He was the size of Woody Allen, with thinning, dark crinkly hair and black glasses, and the closer I got, the more he exuded the magnetism of Yves Montand. The kind of man who could create dreams out of a string of paper lights.
Sylvie hugged me and introduced us. He bowed slightly, said he'd be honored to and glided me out to the dance floor. Song after song, twirling in his arms, fast, slow, the best partner I could remember. He didn't just dance with you; if you could keep up, he took you away. All the relatives started clapping. In my own shoes, dancing all night, grinning from ear to ear, I thought sometimes you get lucky. You get to come full circle.